Stopping Sexual Harassment

In the past, this blog has questioned why sexual harassment is not a criminal offense in the United States as it is in France.

Now the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a second complaint against a business owner who is  characterized as a “serial” sexual harasser because he paid  $780,000 to five women in 2003 to settle a sexual harassment complaint.

The EEOC alleges that Fred Fuller Oil Company, a Hudson, N.H.-based oil company, violated federal law when  owner Fred Fuller sexually harassed two women, caused the constructive discharge of one, and fired the other.

Fuller allegedly forced Nichole Wilkins to quit in July 2011 after he sexually assaulted her by grabbing and squeezing both her breasts from behind while pinning her against her desk.  The EEOC says this assault was the culmination of a growing number of unwanted and inappropriate sexual comments and incidents of touching by Fuller. 

 Fuller then allegedly created a sexually hostile work environment for Wilkin’s friend and co-worker, Beverly Mulcahey. Shortly after Wilkins notified Fuller in October 2011 that she intended to file an EEOC charge of discrimination, Fuller fired Mulcahey for poor performance.

Déjà Vu

The EEOC sued Fred Fuller Oil Company in 2003 and settled that case in July 2005, winning  $780,000 in relief for five women.  As part of the settlement, the company agreed to undergo training aimed at conforming to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sexual harassment.

Markus L. Penzel, trial attorney in the EEOC’s Boston Area Office, said in a press release last month, “The Commission characterized Fred Fuller as a ‘serial sexual harasser’ in its first lawsuit.  Unfortunately, that still seems to be true.”

With sincere respect to Mr. Penzel, it is more than unfortunate that additional women were allegedly targeted by Fuller.  If the EEOC’s complaint is true, these women not only suffered emotional distress but were hounded out of their jobs, resulting in a loss of their financial well-being.

The women who worked for Fred Fuller Oil Co. probably have little in common with  Sherly Sanburg, the billionaire Harvard University graduate and  chief financial officer of Google. She implies in a recent bestselling book that women are partly responsible for their own lack of equality in the workplace. 

The reality is that victims of sexual harassment often are single mothers living paycheck-to-paycheck, with few other employment options, and college students who are trying to earn money to pay their tuition. These women are vulnerable, often not believed, sometimes blamed, almost always powerless and utterly disposable.   

Get Serious!

There’s been a lot of discussion about sexual harassment in the military as a result of publicity surrounding alleged improper sexual conduct of military officers who are responsible for protecting  women from sexual harassment. Surveys show that a third of American women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers have done far too little to halt sexual harassment and the EEOC lacks the resources to effectively address this problem. 

It appears that Fred Fuller  was not deterred by a monetary fine. He  also did not appear to  benefit from education about what constitutes improper sexual conduct in the workplace or training on  how to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. What might have deterred Mr. Fuller?

 France’s  Law

France’s General Assembly enacted a new sexual harassment law on July 31, 2012 that includes criminal penalties of up to three years in prison.

New articles in the French Labor Code and the Penal Code state:

“Harassment is the fact of imposing on a person, in a repetitive fashion, statement or behavior of a sexual connation which violate a person’s dignity by virtue of their degrading or humiliating character or create as concerns such person an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation.”

Under the French law, it is considered an “aggravating circumstance” if a perpetrator of workplace sexual harassment is abusing his or her authority.

If Fred Fuller had snatched the purse of his first victim, he would have been lucky to get just a warning.  If he had continued this behavior, he would  have spent time in jail. That’s because stealing a  purse is a crime. 

Shouldn’t it be a crime to steal someone’s peace of mind and financial livelihood?  

Oregon Interns Get Harrassment/Discrimination Protection

InternsUnpaid interns are especially vulnerable to predatory behavior in the workplace because they are young and inexperienced.

However, many courts have ruled that unpaid interns are not protected by state and federal harassment and discrimination laws.

This week the Oregon legislature agreed to extend workplace protections against harassment and discrimination to unpaid interns.  These protections formerly were reserved only for employees.

The Oregon Senate unanimously passed HB 2669, sending it to Gov. John Kitzhaber for signature. The Oregon house unanimously passed the bill last month. Kitzhaber has indicated that he will sign the bill. 

The new law will give unpaid interns legal recourse against employers for workplace violations including sexual harassment; discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age; and retaliation for whistleblowing, among other things.

With no protection in state law, you might think that unpaid interns could turn to federal law. You’d be wrong.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued  guidelines that provide coverage to volunteers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “if the volunteer work is required for regular employment or regularly leads to employment with the same entity.”  However, unpaid interns have been unable to bring sexual harassment or civil rights complaints under Title VII  because judges have not found them to be “employees”  to whom protections are explicitly afforded.

According to a  2010 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), federal courts have consistently found that the question of whether an individual is compensated for his or her work by an employer is the first test for determining employee status. Accordingly, unpaid interns, or even interns paid by an entity other than an employer, do not receive workplace discrimination protection.

The EPI study reports that the leading precedent for the failure to protect unpaid interns is the case of O’Connor v. Davis,  126 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 1997).  Bridget O’Connor was required to complete an internship for her college degree and chose to work at a local psychiatric center. There, O’Connor allegedly was subject to repeated sexual harassment by one of her supervisors, Dr. James Davis. The district court summarily dismissed O’Connor’s complaint because the plaintiff, as an unpaid intern, did not receive compensation from the center, and thus did not qualify as an employee protected under Title VII. The decision was upheld on appeal.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian told the Associated Press that interns had contacted his office looking for help in the past and “we had to tell them that the law did not protect them.”

Under the measure, an intern who alleges workplace harassment or discrimination, among other violations, can bring a lawsuit against the employer or file a formal complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Avakian said the idea for the bill came from a legislative intern at the Bureau of Labor and Industries. He said the intern discovered the loophole and brought it to his attention.  In 2011, a similar bill failed to gain traction. This year, however, the bill passed with broad support from civil rights groups and a student advocacy group.

The Oregon law  does not create an employment relationship and does not affect wage or workers’ compensation laws.

 Photo by: John Amis

 

 

When Workplace Bullying is Illegal

blackandwhiteWhat is the  difference  between workplace bullying and illegal harassment?

The major difference is that no law at present prohibits workplace bullying –  despite the fact that workplace bullying can severely impact an employee’s emotional and physical well-being.  And most other industrialized countries have enacted laws or regulations that address workplace bullying.

However, bullying  can become illegal when it creates a hostile or abusive work environment in violation of  federal or state civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 Generally, two factors must exist:

  •  The harassing conduct must create a “hostile work environment.”
  •  The harassing conduct must be directed toward a characteristic that is protected under  federal and state  civil rights laws.  Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Therefore, workplace bullying may be illegal if it creates a hostile or abusive work environment and it is directed toward an individual who has protection under federal and state civil rights laws on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, etc.

What is a hostile work environment?  The U.S. Supreme Court says a hostile work environment  is a workplace that is permeated by discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of a victim’s employment and to create an abusive working environment.  Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17 (U.S. 1993).  The Court has repeatedly said that Title VII  does not prohibit simple teasing or a merely offensive utterance.

NOTE:  A  target of illegal harassment does not have to suffer a nervous breakdown to gain the protection of Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court says that as long as the environment would reasonably be perceived and was perceived as hostile or abusive, there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious. The court says psychological harm could be taken into account but is not required by the statute.

To sum up,  there may be no substantive difference between  the conduct that constitutes serious workplace bullying and the conduct that is acknowledged under the law to create an illegal hostile or abusive work environment.  The harassing conduct can be identical, with the exact same devestating  result.

The significant difference between serious workplace bullying and illegal harassment  is a legal distinction pertaining to  the characteristics of the  target of the conduct.

Nevada State Sen. Richard Segerblom has proposed making Title VII “status blind” so that the law provides a remedy for  all targets of a hostile or abusive workplace, whether or not they fall within a category that is now  protected under the law.

 As Shakespeare once observed: “If you prick us, do we not bleed.”

Individuals who are targets of workplace bullying may have other legal recourse, in addition to federal and state civil rights laws.  All targets of workplace bullying  are  encouraged to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law for employees (not companies) to discuss the specific facts of their case and any potential legal remedies within their jurisdiction.

OK for Dentist to Fire Object of Desire

flossIn a small office, an employee often has no where to go  when she is mistreated by an employer.

The perils of this predicament are amply demonstrated in a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The all-male Court  ruled that a dentist did not violate sex discrimination laws when he fired his long-time dental assistant because he (and his wife) was afraid he would have an affair with her.

The  Court upheld a lower court’s grant of summary judgment  in the case of Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012). This means the Court concluded  there was absolutely no way a jury could decide against Dentist James H. Knight and hold in favor of his assistant, Melissa Nelson.  Therefore, the case was dismissed before  trial.

Knight said he fired  Nelson, who had worked for him for ten years,  after his wife insisted that Nelson had to go. He gave Nelson one month’s severance.

 Knight admits that on several occasions he asked Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.”  Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate and said she complained to Knight at one point that his criticism was unfair.

 Nelson also recalls that  Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. The Court found it significant that  Nelson did  not remember ever telling  Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

 When Knight’s wife found out that her husband and Nelson had been  texting each other, she confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment.  The Court finds it significant that Knight and his wife  consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.

After the firing, Knight told Nelson’s husband that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.

Nelson charged that Knight had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. She contended that she would not have been fired if she were male. Nelson did not raise the issue of sexual harassment.

 The Court states in its decision that the question  to be decided was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”   In this case, the Court held that  Knight’s decision was driven by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. The Court concluded Knight’s decision was not gender-based or based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.

The Court states that an employer does not violate sex discrimination laws by ” treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”

 The Court did concede that it might be possible to infer that gender was an issue if an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues.

 So if  Knight repeatedly fires future assistants because he thinks he might want to have an affair with them, or if Knights’ wife demands that he fire future assistants because she thinks he might want to have an affair with them,  presumably a Court could find discrimination  on the basis of sex.

Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson is unemployed, with one month’s severance.

This may not come as a surprise to some readers but, according to the Court’s web site, there are no women justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. The seven justices are Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Thomas D. Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.  Justice Mansfield wrote the opinion.